Dear Airports With Free Wifi: Up Your Game

Filed Under: Travel Technology

While many airline lounges have gotten nicer over the years, the same is true of airports as such. For the most part, transiting a global airport hub without access to a lounge doesn’t suck as much as it used to. That’s not the case everywhere, though there are plenty of airports where I think you can have a great experience as an economy passenger (Dubai, San Francisco, Singapore, etc.).

One of the big improvements we’ve seen is free airport Wi-Fi becoming more widespread. I remember years ago when it was rare for an airport to offer free wifi, while nowadays I feel like more airports offer it than not. Maybe I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth too much here, but there is one thing I find a bit annoying about how some airports offer free Wi-Fi.

Let me start with a positive example. I think Dubai Airport has the world’s best free Wi-Fi offering. They offer unlimited free Wi-Fi with one click. You just open your browser, accept the terms, and you’re online. They don’t ask you to watch an ad, they don’t ask you to enter any personal information, and they don’t only give you free Wi-Fi for a certain amount of time.

There are very few airports that do that, and Dubai Airport’s excellent, free Wi-Fi is one of the first things that comes to mind for me when I think of the airport.

I’m writing this from Singapore Changi Airport, which I consider to be the world’s best airport by a long shot. The amenities are endless, and every time I pass through here I discover some new feature for the first time. I’m not even writing this from the lounge that I have access to, but rather from public seating looking out the window, as I find this to be nicer than the lounge.

Singapore Changi Airport offers free wifi, but with limitations. Assuming you don’t want to download the airport’s app, you’re limited to three hours of free Wi-Fi. Not only that, but you have to either enter a phone number and have them send you a code, or you have to go to a kiosk and enter your passport information to get a code.

This isn’t a deal breaker, but I feel like the world’s best airport should also have the world’s best free Wi-Fi. The irony is that Changi Airport actually has free computers you can use (which very few airports offer), yet they make it a pain to use your own device to access the internet.

I understand when airports make you jump through hoops because Wi-Fi is sponsored by a third party, and they want you to watch an ad. However, I don’t understand airports that make you jump through hoops for other reasons. Some airports want your email address. Am I the only one who just makes one up? Do they really find that they get useful data out of it, and is that worth more than the inconvenience to passengers?

Anyway, the point of this post is to encourage airport operators to do what they can to offer free Wi-Fi that’s easy to connect to. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I instantly love an airport that offers free, unrestricted Wi-Fi with the click of a button. Too bad those airports are few and far between.

Can anyone make sense of why airports like Changi make you jump through hoops? Is it to limit overall usage and keep speeds up, or is there some other motive I’m missing?

  1. DEN doesn’t even make you click anything. Connect to the SSID and you’re good to go. And it’s super fast too.

  2. The Ottawa airport (YOW) has free just-accept-the-terms wifi, and the speed is reasonable.

    I am always amazed when I connect to wifi at a US airport and practically need to beg for 30 minutes of wifi.

  3. One reason is for local government to be able to track who’s using the internet. If you go to China, you can basically never use the internet w/o giving enough info that the gov’t can figure out who you are. Not sure about Singapore, but internet control may be a huge part of this issue.

  4. Typically they want the email and phone number for marketing and/or trend tracking purposes. Sometimes I guess it could be more nefarious as @leol mentions above, but usually it’s so they can send you adverts at a later time. Remember the mantra about Facebook…if you’re seemingly receiving a product for free, then you’re the actual product. Your information is provided to other third parties to cover the costs of operation. Is it slimy and pathetic? Hell yes. But airports, like airlines, are in the business of making money; they just have to do it in ways that are more hidden to the passenger.

  5. @ leol — Is that true? Can they really track who is using the internet based on a non-Singaporean phone number? Sure, they’ll have the phone number, but it seems like there are limited things they can do with that? I certainly could be wrong.

  6. I’m with you

    I used to score hotels one star on trip advisor when they didn’t offer free WiFi as I believe it’s a basic amenity

    Unfortunately it’s not possible to score airports in the same way to convince them of customer requirements and I find airports in the US to be some of the worst offenders with hour time limits and need to download an app as particular grievances

  7. It’s not about world class WiFi or not, many countries have different interpretation of freedom and that doesn’t make them wrong, just different. The inability to accept difference is what causes misunderstanding.

  8. Spot on. Changi used to have a simple “accept terms and connect” system. Now, it’s an absolute pain to connect, especially when not all devices are unlocked internationally. When the government-run [email protected] (free, island-wide public WiFi which can also be accessed from Changi) requires a one-time registration and auto-connects, it’s anybody’s guess as to why the world’s best airport requires has the dumbest WiFi policy.

  9. Yeah lets all complain about something that’s free…

    Plus who cares in the US when most everyone has unlimited data and every phone can be a hotspot. As for international airports when are most readers of this blog not in a lounge, domestically sure but who doesn’t have a priority pass these days when overseas where its actually worthwhile?

  10. @ steve_ — Tethering doesn’t get you high speed wifi, there’s a difference. And as I said in the post, I actually prefer the terminal to many lounges at Changi. I had access to the Singapore Airlines Lounge, but mostly decided to sit in the terminal anyway, since I find it to be nicer and have more natural light.

  11. @ JW — I do accept if this is due to some government policies, but that’s often not the case. There are many US airports with ridiculous wifi log-in practices, and like Michael said, there are other government run wifi networks in Singapore that have an easier log-in process.

  12. China asked for cell number to monitor your using and it is the same for Singapore, which has freedom but no democracy lol.

  13. I strongly suspect this is a legal requirement in Singapore, for public (i.e. non-lounge) wifi

    I know for sure that it is a legal requirement in a number of other countries – Thailand springs to mind, where you need to enter your passport details and date of birth, which I don’t mind doing (as you well know, my name is Joe Shmoe, Dob 1/1/1900, Afghan passport 11111111)

  14. They won’t try to figure out who’s behind every cell phone number. They’ll just keep a record of who is using it and investigate when necessary.

  15. @ Lucky

    Yes. It can be exactly tracked. At least what you do and where you are. And mostly also who you are, depending on equipment used. We can assume equipment in Singapore is top notch.

  16. Krakow has the most pathetic wifi. The landing page is literally full of ads. And then once you finally get connected, the speed is so abysmally slow I couldn’t even make a Skype call. Kept telling me there’s wasn’t even bandwidth. Seems like all they care about is how many passengers they can push through their now.

  17. It is for security reason. So the government can track down who is doing suspicious or terrorist activity.

  18. I was similarly puzzled with requirement for local ID (or passport) for pre-paid SIM card in Italy. Likely, someone-somewhere-at-some-point used prepaid phone for dramatic malicious activity, so they are collecting data to investigate when bad things happen (with that amount of bureaucracy, I don’t think malicious non-warranted use of that data is likely, but it is certainly possible). Similar thought exists in China – one can’t buy ticket to Forbidden City without ID (local or passport) – with idea that legal offenders can be tracked easily if required. Even in North America – cell phone use data has to be retained for certain amount of time (ostensibly accessible only by legal warrant, but…)
    In short, lot of pointless jumping through hoops comes from governments resorting to controlling malicious activity by tracking “free” movement of everybody they can get.

  19. Changi staff told me the passport requirement is a government security measure. Which means, in reality, it’s a way for the government to have a record, at least retroactively, of who’s been doing what online.

  20. Lucky, as many have commented this is indeed so government agencies can track your activity while on that network and yes, they can certainly track and monitor activity on foreign phone numbers as well. This is done to varying degrees on public wifi (esp in “strategic” locations) in a number of countries, including Russia and China, and Singapore certainly can afford the very best technology.

    In Russia, such a telephone registration seems to be required for ANY publicly available wifi network at all based on my experience.

  21. Changi is such a pain the ass for wifi, it’s really bizarre for an airport of that caliber. Really created some problems for me before I figured out the drill. No excuse for it.

    Seattle’s super easy, and makes me happy. I’ll take the easy victories in life…

  22. Changi was my favourite airport until three weeks ago I passed through for the first time not being able to use one of the great lounges.

    Trying to log on to the public wifi I came across the same quite disturbing requirements. So the least I wanted to do is reading the terms and conditions. The signal was so weak though that the page did not open up. I tried it at various locations in the terminal and it did not work.

    The bad experience did not stop there. At terminal 3 (probably at the others as well, I don’t remember) the final security check for carry-on luggage is decentralized closer to the respective departure gates. My flight was scheduled to leave at 10:00 pm, boarding was at 09:20. After waiting in line for 10 minutes I was ready to put my carry-on through the X-ray at about 8:40 pm but after looking at my boarding pass security told me I was too early and had to come back later. After pointing out that boarding was just 40 minutes later I was still sent back asked to come again at 09:00 pm.

    Only in Singapore!

  23. Changi Airport is a state-owned subsidiary but privately run. Government regulations for public spaces therefore do not extend to the Airport (if they do, you’ll start seeing the need to register for Wi-fi in malls, train stations etc.). It’s more likely that Changi is trying to collect data on where their visitors reside, and not just where they are going / coming from, because (1) the government authorities are not sharing this data with them, and (2) they want to avoid cases of people picking Afghanistan in registration forms 🙂

  24. (IND)ianapolis has nothing to click, just connect and see incredible public Wifi with speeds above 100+ Mbps!

  25. HKG has a pretty reasonable wi-fi service, just one click. I think it’s time-limited (2 hours?) but just as easy to renew. Speed is great – I use it even when inside the CX lounge, as I find it often faster.

  26. Singapore national security. They want to see who you are, what you are doing, with whom you communicate. Singapore government is big brother! For all living or passing through there

  27. Dubai is now like this? Great! Two years ago, only 30 minutes free wifi.
    HongKong is the best, unlimited free wifi without any personal info required, also free computers available.

  28. I was really impressed with Frankfurt and Munich airport wifi, 50mb/s real download speed (not a test) in the middle of the terminal

  29. What really got me in Switzerland was the text verification wifi codes.

    I’m trying to get on your wifi because I don’t want to pay for cell service…

  30. Am sitting in the biz “lounge” (cordoned off area by gate 10) in Addis Ababa at the moment. The only WiFi available is the free airport WiFi – which has no password requirement, or hoops to jump thru —-but it is DEATHLY SLOW. Dial-up speeds…..

  31. The ABSOLUTE WORST airport for wifi is Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD). You have to use Boing and the money you pay goes to the pols @ City Hall and God knows who else. I think it’s the worst setup in America, and some FAs tell me they have had to apologize to their customers because their airline has no control over this.

    If you have access to a lounge, no problem. But for the hoi polloi, it’s “Haha suckers, hand over your money !!”.

    Chicago sucks when it comes to ORD wifi…..

  32. Particularly annoying are the airports that send you an access code to a phone number. That’s pretty useless if you are in transit and don’t have a local SIM.

  33. Adage: “There is not such thing as a free lunch.” In terms of WiFi, people want it free, easy, fast and unlimited. In others words, their desire exceeds technology and outweighs common sense.

    I have been running computer systems for over 30 years. (Yes, I was soldering RS232 cables and fixing broken coax connecters before there was wireless.) Here are a couple of terms that should scare anyone who worries about their privacy: rogue wireless access points, domain name spoofing, and man in the middle attack. They are very easy to set up in a Free WiFi environment and consistently effective against people who are too cheap to purchase a VPN service (i.e., the people who are always looking for Free WiFi).

  34. @Tam. Singapore has neither freedom nor democracy. Unless you call one party elections democracy (like Russia in the 80’s).
    Everyone is continuously monitored one way or another.

  35. Frankfurt is my nomination for free WiFi that doesn’t work. I use the ol’ false everything form full in but have had one case where they check the email address works. That one gets the address where everything is diverted straight to junk. Dubai is good. Reflects EK’s free-hour policy which is just enough for a bit of “I’m off to…” bragging before the service starts.y

    Speaking of policy, this blog needs to lose the freakin’ confirmation of future comments emails. If I didn’t want to see follow up, I wouldn’t tick the box.

  36. I think changi’s WiFi is pretty harmless. It’s annoying yes to get your number, but I always click on the 24h option and they never actually make me download the app.

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